BY JODY WOOD-PUTNAMWith many of the mature trees in my garden uprooted or broken after Hurricane Michael, I was surprised and amazed with the perseverance of my camellias. I have over 130 different types of camellias, many of them named cultivars. I was thankful that most survived and were not crushed by falling trees. Some of the camellias were windswept and leaning. They had to be straightened. Almost all the surviving plants kept their leaves and buds. By the end of November, there were beautiful camellias flowering in my garden. Even better, these camellias were flowering in time to provide nectar for migrating monarch butterflies. Among all the destruction and with winter approaching, very few other flowers were to be found.
While camellias are attractive all year with their glossy evergreen foliage, it is the winter months when they shine with their magnificent flowers in bloom. With the trees lost and other damage to our home and garden, the blooming camellias are a pure joy and will bloom until March.
Types of Camellias
There are over 200 species of camellias and, from these, thousands of cultivars and hybrid camellias have been developed. There are some that grow only a few feet in height, and others grow to heights of over 50 feet. Most camellias flower in shades of white, pink and red. Their flowers may be of a single color or variegated. They come in many forms ranging from simple five-petal flowers to large, complex flowers that resemble pompoms.
The two species usually grown in northwest Florida landscapes are Camellia sasanqua and Camellia japonica. Camellia sasanqua generally has smaller leaves and flowers and blooms in the fall. Along with having larger leaves and flowers, Camellia japonica typically blooms in winter or early spring. Through careful selection of camellia species and cultivars, a gardener can have flowers from October through April.
Camellias are generally very easy to grow. Once established, they prefer well-drained acidic soils with high organic matter. While both Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua prefer partial shade conditions, Camellia sasanqua can generally tolerate more sun. They need regular moisture to thrive, but should not be kept wet. They benefit from an occasional application of fertilizer and from mulching, which keeps down weed competition, keeps the roots cooler, and helps hold in moisture.
Camellias can be grown as shrubs or small trees. They can be pruned into a hedge, left as a multi-trunked shrub or given a tree form through the removal of the lower branches.
As far as maintenance, a gardener should prune out any dead or dying branches and keep an eye out for any pests or diseases.
A good resource to help with identifying and addressing problems can be found at the American Camellia Society website, americancamellias.com.
Enjoying the Flowers
Camellia flowers are enjoyed in the garden and also can be cut and brought inside. When placed in water, they will generally last for a few days. For those who are unable to have camellias in their own gardens, there are two nearby state parks with historic camellia gardens: Eden Gardens State Park and Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park. Peak viewing is generally in March, but camellias can be seen flowering throughout most of winter and spring.
Eden Gardens State Park is located west of Panama City just off of Highway 98 on County Road 395. This historic site spans 163 acres and features the Wesley House, an elegant white two-story columned mansion and its ornamental gardens, which were planted in the 1960s. Today, beautiful mature camellias are located in several areas of the grounds.
Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park spans 1,176 acres and is located on the north side of Tallahassee, off Thomasville Road. It features an extensive historic winter garden that was first planted in the 1920s and includes hundreds of mature camellias as well as azaleas and other ornamental plants.
The Most Famous Camellia of All—Camellia Sinensis, the Tea Plant
Many people don’t realize that tea is made from the leaves of a particular camellia species, Camellia sinensis. While the flowers are not as showy as many of the other camellias, this shrub can grow quite well in Northwest Florida. Like other camellias, it prefers partial shade and acidic, well-drained soil conditions. Yes, in Northwest Florida, a gardener can grow and harvest their own tea!
Whether it is to grow your own tea or to have beautiful flowers in the winter, camellias are a great option to brighten a partially shady area of the garden.
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